I’ve been trying to write this post for a week and so far I have three different drafts of about 750 to 1500 words each, the first two not worth the paper they were never actually printed on. And while the exercise of writing has helped me process both the data and my personal feelings on the matter I am not sure I have written anything publishable. The subject? World of Warcraft and its latest expansion, Warlords of Draenor. Unfortunately nostalgia, disappointment, and a sense of loss have soaked the wool of informed opinion with the dew of emotionally charge memory making it difficult for me to comment meaningfully on the current state of WoW. I think I am unable to be objective on this topic but have decided to push through and write anyway.
A week ago Alt:ernative Chat posed a question via Twitter asking what would entice former players to return to Azeroth. I missed the original Twitter conversation but did read the subsequent post and decided I would try to answer the question as well on my blog. I began by making a list of features I felt were missing. Dailies that unlock crafting recipes, gear, and cosmetic rewards and that progress the central storyline. The return of scenarios and valor so that players can be rewarded for the daily completion of said scenarios as well as dungeons. These features were chief among those I had been missing since reaching level 100.
My intended point was that the removal of those features decreased the value of this expansion as compared to previous ones because there was less content for the end game player. Thus I believed the $50 I spent purchasing Warlords of Draenor bought me less than the $40 I spent on Mists of Pandaria. With my current interest in Final Fantasy XIV I was also going to cite it as an example of a game providing meatier updates and expansions than Blizzard was able to produce. However as I wrote comparisons between the WoW expansions themselves I was no longer certain that there was less content than in the past per se, but rather alternative forms that did not match my personal preference.
What was the problem then? Has there really been a decline in quality or am I simply missing an earlier form of WoW that no longer exists? Is the game really worse or just different? After drafting the first two posts I had determined the problem was not with Blizzard’s design but rather with me. I was mourning a lost incarnation of Azeroth and looking for fault with the developers instead. After all, it is hard to let go when there are memories I would like to relive and the simplest form of coping is to blame someone else.
Had that been the only conclusion I would have abandoned the idea and never started a third draft. My original soapbox proved to be flimsy and unable to support the weight of my malcontent with the game. Then I read this piece by Tough Love Critic which brought new perspective on the subject. In this post Tacktix discusses the need for Heart of Thorns, the upcoming expansion for Guild Wars 2, to deliver big on all the updates and additions ArenaNet has proposed so that the studio may overcome the loss of trust many players have felt over previous campaigns that have hyped new content or game systems only to have the studio follow through on them half way if at all. I can’t speak with any authority on ArenaNet or Guild Wars 2 but what resonated with me was the notion of a breach of trust between player and creator.
While it’s undeniably true that both my desire to play an earlier version of WoW and my unrest with the changes brought about by the release of Warlords affect how I feel about the game and the studio behind it there has also been a tangible breach of trust. And that rift has widened by my interaction with other games and the value they provide by contrast. For me that loss of trust began last year with a fourteen month content drought and continued with the gutting and reimagining of my favorite spec for the warrior class as well as the “modernization” of WoW’s end game model. The shift in playstyle and the negligence in providing new content for paying players has left me jaded and suspicious. If I continue to invest in the game, will Blizzard continue to take it away from me?
Last year was when I first heard about Final Fantasy XIV and the work of Naoki Yoshida in rebuilding the franchise from the ground up after a disastrous first launch. Since rebranding the game A Realm Reborn, the studio has managed to update the MMO with significant patches on a predictable three month cycle. Nearly every patch includes daily hubs and dungeons, progresses the legendary weapon quest chain, and unfolds more of the main story scenario. FFXIV has even added a new class in a patch and will introduce three more in the upcoming expansion, Heavensward. What was Blizzard up to during this same timeframe? Seemingly nothing; fourteen months went by without any new content. And while the delivery of content was interrupted for over a year the subscription cycle for players certainly was not.
Finally, in November of last year when the lengthy development of Warlords came to a close and the game officially launched both my class and the end game model were unrecognizable; they had been rebuilt into something new and foreign. It was not the product I thought I was purchasing. While this is subjective, for me it was as if they took the game I enjoyed and a favored class and broke them both. It’s backwards to think this way— I realize that— but I felt as though Blizzard had sullied my game, the one I had entrusted to them and instead they severed that trust and redesigned the game in their own image.
While it may seem unreasonable to claim WoW as my own, it only serves to illustrate that ownership in this genre is not only in the hands of the creator. It begins with the studio who designs and sells the game but as a community forms around that virtual world and identifies with it in ways that may or may not be in line with the studio’s intent, custody moves into the hands of the players and must be shared by both parties for the health and future of the game. It is a symbiotic, cyclical stewardship. And if the developer choses to drive the game’s evolution in a direction that distorts pieces that initially endeared players to the game, eventually the community will grow indifferent and trust will be transferred to someone else.
I think that is why Final Fantasy XIV is such a success and why World of Warcraft will eventually lose momentum in the MMO market. Failure at the onset forced Square Enix to reconsider the game they were making and to determine if it was the kind of game their audience actually wanted to play. With A Realm Reborn they have been able to win back trust in the MMO community, displaying respect for the player base with content that is both prolific and well done. They have been responsible with the IP they created and that was in turn entrusted back to them by the fans. By contrast Blizzard seems to continually crash forward on their own course regardless of player preference and the outcry of those who offer measured, considerate criticism. Sadly they can ignore the consequences of that neglect, at least for a time; they have the brand loyalty and social inertia to do so.
All that said, I don’t think Blizzard has made a bad game nor do I think “the end is nigh” for World of Warcraft. The problems they encounter as a studio and the decisions they face in order to project the Warcraft legacy over another ten years are unlike anything experienced by any other studio. They walk a fine line between maintaining the status quo at the risk of becoming obsolete and propelling the game forward by embracing modern trends at the expense of isolating their oldest alumni. As for me, I can’t shake the feeling that it may be time to turn off the lights and lock up for good.
A Matter of Trust
by Billy Joel
Some love is just a lie of the heart
The cold remains of what began with a passionate start
And they may not want it to end
But it will it’s just a question of when
I’ve lived long enough to have learned
The closer you get to the fire the more you get burned
But that won’t happen to us
Cause it’s always been a matter of trust